Obama’s science appointees called a team of all-stars

Accomplished and outspoken, they’re likely to tackle climate change head-on.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
Harvard professor John Holdren, nominated this weekend, was one of the first scientists to speak out about the Bush administration’s political interference with science.

Call it the “green team” or the “dream team.” Either way, President-elect Barack Obama’s choices to fill top science and environment-related posts in his new administration represent a remarkable assembly of talent.

With his picks well in hand, Mr. Obama is positioned to reverse what many see as eight years of sluggish action in the US and internationally on global warming. The picks also boost the prospects for wider use and further development of alternative energy sources. And the nominees – particularly those who come directly out of the science community – are expected to be strong advocates for erasing political interference with government research.

Many groups have sent the transition team a list of actions Obama could take to achieve the goals during the first 100 days, most of which could be accomplished by executive order.

“In terms of appointing top scientists to key agency positions, we haven’t seen the caliber of scientists we’re seeing now,” says Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. “Probably more important, we haven’t seen such highly respected scientists who also have been outspoken conservation advocates.

The challenge, however: Shaping a collection of driven, highly accomplished individuals – including two Nobel prize winners – into a group that can help implement changes Obama seeks in policy areas ranging from shaping a green economic recovery and more aggressive action on global warming to stem-cell research. That’s the view from several science-policy specialists as they look at the team Obama has named.

The four most recent additions came over the weekend. They include John Holdren, who heads the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, as the president’s science adviser; Jane Lubchenco, a highly regarded marine scientist from Oregon State University to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and biomedical researchers Harold Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health and Nobel laureate, and Eric Lander, a key leader in the Human Genome Project and founding director of the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, to serve with Dr. Holdren as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

These nominations come on the heels of earlier nominations that include Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of California at Berkeley and head of the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory to head the US Department of Energy.

The nominations also got a thumbs-up from one of the few members of Congress with scientific expertise, Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey, a physicist: “Those who want our nation to take real steps to address climate change and bolster innovation ... are thrilled with this news.”

One key area where the appointments are expected to make a difference is in correcting what many critics see as the Bush administration’s consistent distortion or suppression of research conducted by government scientists.

In his weekend address, Obama highlighted the issue. “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it’s about protecting free and open inquiry,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient.”

Holdren was one of the first scientists to speak out about the Bush administration’s political interference with science, notes Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a public policy research and advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass.

Congress already has made a start in curbing political interference via two bills passed and signed by President Bush earlier this year. One shines more light on the process the US Food and Drug Administration uses to review new drugs and monitor the safety of the drugs it approves. The other strengthens the independence of offices of inspectors general from the departments they scrutinize, including provisions that help protect the anonymity of scientists and other whistle-blowers.

On the energy and climate front, Obama’s nominees generally have been outspoken supporters of ramping up energy conservation efforts and increasing the country’s reliance on climate-friendly ways to power the economy.

Even his nominees for the top posts at the State and Commerce Departments as well as the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Labor all “get it,” says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at UCS. For example, Rep. Hilda Solis (D) of California, Obama’s pick for labor secretary, has long advocated green jobs and worker training in clean-energy technologies. “With her analysis of the benefits of shifting to clean energy, she’s all over that,” Mr. Meyer says.

Dr. Chu’s and Holdren’s impact might be felt internationally as well, especially if Obama continues a process Mr. Bush started of holding regular meetings with those countries that emit the most greenhouse gases.

China has often been a target of US criticism for its rising emissions, and it is a key player in negotiations leading to a new global climate treaty. Chu has visited the country to explore alternative energy technologies with counterparts there. And Holdren has helped establish several cooperative programs with China and India that aim to accelerate the spread of green energy technologies.

“The difference between Bush and Obama is black and white,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

But the appointment of such a high-powered team also carries risks. It could well raise expectations among Obama supporters for major change on energy, environment, and other science-related issues that could be politically impossible to meet – both in level of ambition and in pace of change.

Still, adds Meyer, “If they can’t pull it off, it won’t be for lack of trying.”

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